In an era of relativism, doubt and dissent, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to hear or read someone claim that there is no hell especially among cynics and atheists. This has been a recurring theme for all ages. Hell poses a problem for both modern theologians and contemporary man.
A dilemma arises as one tries to reconcile the Christian imagery of the worm that dies not and the unquenchable fire (Mark 9: 42-47) with the idea of a merciful and loving God.
Indeed, the 20th century saw nearly the death of hell. Ridiculed by modern intellectuals and increasingly watered down or ignored by preachers who opt for more feel-good, less frightening themes, the menace of eternal damnation after death for unrepentant sinners in a lake of fire all but vanished from the religious mainstream by the 1960s.
Thus, influenced and infected by rationalist doctrine that negated revealed truth, certain authors present a modern conception of hell far removed from traditional Catholic doctrine. To them the damned are not all totally lost, that not all are guilty of hating God. In these cases, then, pain of loss and of sense would not be as severe as theologians generally affirm.
What is Hell?
- The Latin word infernum (hell) comes from infernus and signifies a place within and below the earth.
- In the Old Testament the corresponding Hebrew term, sheol, signifies, in general terms, the kingdom of the dead whether good or bad.
- Sheol was used both to refer to hell in the strict sense, i.e., the place of punishment for the damned, be they demons or men AND the limbo of the Fathers (limbus patrum), in which the souls of the just who died before Christ awaited their admission to heaven which was closed then as a consequence of Original Sin.
- In the New Testament the hell of the damned is often called Gehenna, a Greek word derived from the Hebrew Gehinnom, which alludes to the desolate Valley of Hinnom, a ravine to the south of Jerusalem where trash fires burned incessantly and where ancient human sacrifices had been offered to Canaanite gods.
- By the second century B.C., when the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek, sheol became hades in the Greek Bible, and the two concepts coalesced in popular thinking.
- Thus the word came to express the real hell as is now generally understood: hell which lasts forever, a worm which will not die, a fire which cannot be quenched. (Mark:43, 44)
In a nutshell, the Catholic Church teaches that,
- Hell refers properly to the state of the damned, that is, of demons first and then of men who die in the state of mortal sin and are consequently condemned to suffer eternally.
- Secondly, it signifies also the place where condemned souls are incarcerated.
“The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, "eternal fire." The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.
“…God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end.”
Thus the Church teaches clearly that there is a place of unequalled and never-ending pain destined for the damned.
The words of Christ
For the doubting Thomases out there, the perennial question invariably turns out to be, “How do we know that hell really exists?”
"The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 13:41-42)
“And fear ye not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
Nothing can be more compelling and cogent than the authoritative pronouncements of the Word Incarnate, Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Philosophers, intellectuals and theologians can question, dissent or refute and the common man can digress, doubt or outright refuse but, in the final analysis, what really matter are the infallible words of the Son of God Himself who cited hell no less than fifteen times in Sacred Scriptures.
See also (Matthew 5:22; 13: 41-42; 23:15, 33, 25:41; Mark 9:42-47; John 15: 5-6; Luke 16: 22-24)
Why Hell exists
God in His infinite goodness created Heaven for all men. He does not wish evil on anyone and thus, does not want men to go to Hell. He provides them with abundant means to attain their salvation. Nevertheless, His unbounded generosity becomes useless if men reject Him and refuse His graces.
Although God is merciful, He is also just. His justice and mercy co-exist in perfect and harmonic balance unlike men in whom mercy can deteriorate into weakness and justice into hardness of heart. God can exercise both with steadfast equilibrium without nullifying each other.
God created Hell to satisfy and avenge Divine justice, offended by sin. Hell's pains and torments atone for the grave transgressions committed against Him and re-establish the order of the Universe, which demands that good be rewarded and evil punished.
Thus Hell's existence serves as a potent and compelling (and often the only effective) stimulus to practice virtue. A healthy fear of Hell leads countless souls from the path of wickedness and iniquity to love of God and the observance of God’s commandments.
Finally considering the mercy of God, Who grants so many graces for salvation, one sees more clearly the necessity of Divine Justice and Hell.
The fires of Hell
Traditional doctrine based on the generally accepted interpretation of Scripture teaches that the fire of hell is a real fire. St. Thomas speaks of it as a corporeal fire, much like earthly fire, but differs from it only accidentally for it does not thrive on any terrestrial fuel. It is dark, flameless, eternal, and burns bodies without consuming them.
The general consensus among theologians about the differences that separate hellfire from natural fire are:
· Natural fire is produced as a result of certain chemical processes while the fire of Hell owes its origin and its subsistence to the wrath of God.
· Natural fire only operates on souls through means of their bodies while infernal fire directly tortures the spirit.
· Natural fire will extinguish itself while that which the wrath of God enkindles, will burn forever.
· Natural fire illuminates while the fire of Hell produces darkness.
· Natural fire consumes what it burns; the infernal flame burns and tortures its victim without destroying him.
But woe to the man who shall suffer from it! St. Bridget offers us an idea of this immense and eternal torturing flames in her revelations, “the heat of hell-fire is so great that if the whole world were wrapped in flames, the heat of the conflagration would be as nothing in comparison with it.”
Pain of the Loss of God
The Latin word, damnum, translated as "loss," signifies damage. The damned soul loses the privilege of the beatific vision as a result of unrepented mortal sin. This deprivation of the divine countenance constitutes the greatest of all torments in Hell. The unfortunate soul who dies in the state of impenitence will be turned away forever from the infinite goodness and beauty of God.
Fr. Reginald Garrigou –Lagrange, O.P, in his book Everlasting Life, expounds further,
“The pain of loss, the consequence of final impenitence, consists in an immense void which will never be filled, in an eternal contradiction which is the fruit of the hatred of God, in despair, in perpetual remorse without repentance, in hate of one's neighbor, in envy, in a grudge against God which is expressed by blasphemy.”
The reprobate and lost soul, longing for happiness and irresistibly attracted to God, finds itself rejected and hated with infinite force by Him on account of its sins. No worldly glory or riches could ever restore the Supreme Good it irremediably lost.
Even so, according to St. Thomas, the damned have no remorse for sin because they are forever set in their attachment to the iniquity of their sin. Their only remorse is the profound sadness and unhappiness caused by the punishment they are suffering because of their serious transgression.
Charity; the love of God; the limitless delights and joys of heaven; the friendship of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, of the angels and the saints, of the elect souls that live in God; all virtues, and the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost which remain in heaven – gone and eternally deprived from that poor soul!
Let one ponder deeply on the following: amidst the excruciating pains of this inconsolable loss, the tormented soul reaches the point of no return where it shrieks in immense despair, boundless misery, remorse without repentance, hate and envy of God …forever!
The vision of Hell according to the Fatima apparitions
In face of the immense moral crisis afflicting modern man, any discussion about hell would not be complete without mentioning the first part of the secret of Fatima. While many saints and mystics had visions of hell in the past, most notably St. Francis Jerome, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John Bosco, etc, we focus on Fatima as it is the most relevant to our times in importance and urgency. Sister Lucia describes the vision as follows,
“Upon saying these last words, she again opened her hands as in the preceding two months. The reflection appeared to penetrate into the earth and we saw, as it were, a sea of fire. Submerged in that fire were demons and souls in human shapes who resembled red-hot, black and bronze-colored embers that floated about in a blaze borne by the flames that issued from them with a cloud of smoke, falling everywhere like sparks in great fires, without weight or equilibrium, amidst moans of pain and despair that horrified us and made us shake with terror (that must be when I shouted ‘aahii’ people said they heard.) The devils had horrible and disgusting shapes of scary and unknown animals but were transparent like black burning coals. Scared and as if asking for help, we raised our eyes to Our Lady, who said with goodness and sadness:
“You have seen hell, where the souls of poor sinners go; in order to save them, God wants to establish devotion to my Immaculate Heart in the world. If they do what I tell you, many souls will be saved and there will be peace…”
The vision lasted but an instant, during which Sister Lucia let out a gasp as described above. She explains that if it were not for Our Lady’s special graces and the promise that the seers would be taken to heaven, they would have died of fright and terror.
Lessons to be learned
The horror experienced by the seers upon seeing hell was captured in a photograph in which their faces conveyed the frightful reality of hell.
If Our Lady’s maternal heart deemed it proper to reveal the torments of hell to these children, it is first and foremost to remind mankind of the existence of an eternal hell (sadly, an oft forgotten dogma of the Faith in our days,) defined by the Church in councils, symbols of Faith and documents of the Magisterium. The New Testament gives testimony to this eternal punishment in many verses,
- “eternal punishment” (Mark 25:46)
- “everlasting fire” (Mark 9:43)
- “the fire is never extinguished” (Mark 9:48)
- “the smoke of their torment will go up forever” (Apoc. 14:11)
- “their torture will not stop, day and night, forever and ever” (Apoc. 20:10)
Our Lady wants to instill fear but not that of mundane fear borne out of human respect, culpable timidity and slavery to worldly opinion, but a fear of God which is the beginning of wisdom. While servile fear, the fear of the just punishment of God, is salutary we must strive to let this grow to a more perfect filial fear of a son towards his father. And in this context, it is to fear sin because it offends the Supreme Good which is God.
Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange explains,
“This filial fear, though it is the least elevated of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, is nevertheless the beginning of wisdom. It is true wisdom to fear sin, which drives us far from God. Filial fear corresponds to the beatitude of the poor in spirit, of those who fear the Lord and therefore already possess Him.”
We poor mortals start with fear of God’s chastisement. But let us follow the lead of saints who elevate it further with the growth of charity. As they grow in the love of God, the more they fear to be separated from Him. This filial fear is the gift of the Holy Ghost.
This perfect love shines in all of its glory in St. Teresa of Avila’s prayer to God, “Your love so holds my heart that, if there were no heaven, I would love you still. If there were no hell I would still fear to offend you.”
Let us ponder and reflect on the above immutable truths of our Holy Catholic Faith.
May Our Lady of Fatima lead us towards this sublime path towards eternal glory.
1. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Reginald, Everlasting Life. Available on-line at:
2. Solimeo, Luiz Sergio, “Life after Death,”
3. Schouppe,S.J., F.X., The Dogma of Hell, (Barclay Street, New York: Hickey & Co., “The Vatican Library,”1883.)
4. Von Cochem, O.S. F.C., Martin, The Four Last Things, (Rockford, Illinois, TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., 1987.)
5. New Advent, Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07207a.htm
6. Sheler, Jeffrey L., “Hell Hath No Fury,” U.S. News on-line, January 31, 2000,
7. Catechism of the Catholic Church,
8. Solimeo, Luiz Sergio, Fatima, A Message More Urgent than Ever, (Spring Grove, PA: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property-TFP, 2008.)
9. Balducci, Corrado, The Devil..”alive and active in the world,”(Staten Island, New York: Alba House, Society of St. Paul, 1990.)